Throughout the centuries past, there has been an abundance of great philosophers and thinkers offering their opinions on the meaning of life
, and one’s physical and spiritual relationship with the world around them. Each great thinker has provided their own set of beliefs and has attempted to model their lives according to these understandings. Most of these beliefs tend to emphasize one’s relationship with God
and the after life
, which should subsequently guide their behavior towards achieving eternal enlightenment. However, one particular ideology
seems to differ significantly from the rest, that being the concept of nihilism. While it is difficult to place a strict definition on nihilism, the basic principles can be explained. Essentially, nihilism is the idea that all values and beliefs are false as a result of a lack of any substantial evidence of can be precisely defined as truth. This somewhat radical belief has always been regarded as slightly unpopular
, due to its close relationship to atheism and anarchism. However, this does not mean that nihilistic beliefs are not common today. In fact, through close scrutiny and detail, nihilism can be found in one of the most popular expressive mediums today, that being the art of music. This is not exactly an obvious inference to make, as it seems hard to envision popular artists such as U2
and Bon Jovi
recording music describing their lack of faith in religion and organized society. However, nihilism is very much popular in an often forgotten genre of modern music, industrial
and heavy metal
. Through in depth lyrical analysis of essential artists in this group, the popularity of nihilism in modern society will become quite clear.
Before any judgements can be made towards the existence of nihilism today, a better understanding of nihilism itself must first be provided. First of all, it is important to consider that ever since the original inception of nihilism, there has been frivolous debate as to what it really is. The most well noted philosopher regarding nihilism was a German by the name of Friedrich Nietzsche, who once said “What is nihilism? The highest values become devalued. There is no goal. There are no answers to the question “What for?”” (Frey, 124) Nietzsche also provided another further explanation of this belief when he said “…there is no truth, that there is no absolute nature of things nor a 'thing-in-itself”(Ronen, 102). While these two statements might not provide the complete understanding of nihilism one might seek, they do provide the backbone to Nietzsche’s philosophy. A nihilist’s relationship with god and truth has been severed, and this leaves them to explore their world without the constraints of social structure and religion. According to Frey, Nietzsche derived this belief from the movement of god to a supernatural being due to the rise of Judaism. This left the question of the meaning of life without an answer, and essentially destroyed western society’s faith in the afterlife. Once this state has been reached, a person is given the ability to exist in a fashion independent of the boundaries set forth by others. The manner in which this new freedom will be explored is very much important. According to Alan Pratt of Embry-Riddle University, different sets of nihilistic beliefs exist. An existential nihilist would believe that there is essentially no meaning to life itself, and is the most commonly understood term of nihilism found today. A political nihilist would believe that in order to improve the society we exist in, the current practices of religion and government would have to be eliminated or significantly altered. And ethical nihilist would hold the opinion that there are no such thing as morals or ethics, but rather that these are simply the result of the rules of society. When examining the modern heavy music scene, the influence of nihilistic thought in the lyrical writing process of these artists becomes quite clear.
Probably the most easily recognizable nihilistic group of heavy metal artists are Marilyn Manson. Even those who are unfamiliar with the band’s music have heard of the rebellious lead singer’s extravagant acts on stage and in the public spotlight. The band’s often controversial lyrics are the workings of lead singer Brian Warner, whose religious and societal views are not kept a secret in any way. For example, in the song "Posthuman", Warner states his disbelief in the existence of a supernatural lord through the lines “This isn't God/this isn't God/God is just a statistic” (4-6). This provides a fairly clear cut description of Warner’s opinion towards religion. This is a very nihilistic statement in the sense that he is quite clearly proclaiming his lack of belief of a "true" god. Instead, he presents the idea that the concept of what God is considered to be is in fact more of a justification for actions we cannot readily understand. He provides further explanation to this detail when he proclaims “God is a number you cannot count to/You are posthuman and hardwired” (11-12). This statement reflects his opinions on the effects of church and religion on the people who are influenced by it. Those who put all their faith in something they have no evidence in lose their sense of true self, and instead operate according to the wishes of the church. Warner furthers his points on the effects of the church in "Mechanical Animals", where he states “You were automatic and as hollow as the "o" in God” (7). Once again, Warner believes that religion reduces one to a state of strict obedience, which is warranted by a faith in something with no actual substantial evidence. In "The Fight Song", Warner shows a nihilistic approach to rebellion from the shackles of religion and conformity. The lines “But I'm not a slave to a god /that doesn't exist” (4-6) show his distaste towards the current state of society, and his realization of the falsity of a true god. By proclaiming that he is “not a slave”, Warner obtains the freedom found in nihilism by no longer being attached to any form of religion of social structure. He then encourages the listener to engage in this new found liberation and fight the boundaries of conformity by exclaiming “Fight!/Fight!/Fight!/Fight!” (13-16). Taken as is, this may seem like a very crude and basic statement, that being to desire to engage in acts of violence with others. However, a deeper analysis shows that Warner is actually protesting the limitations placed by society, and that this structure can only face defeat with the strength of many. By encouraging this downfall, Warner believes that a better society can exist, which agrees strongly with many nihilistic beliefs.
Perhaps the most well known metal artists to incorporate nihilistic beliefs into their lyrics are Metallica. While mostly unknown until the mid 80’s, Metallica became an extremely popular group through their controversial video for "One", which featured images from the film adaptation of Johnny Got His Gun. Lead singer and primary songwriter James Hetfield uses the band as an outlet to voice his opinions on government and religion, many of these opinions being very nihilistic in nature. Strong nihilistic feelings can be found in "Eye of the Beholder", where in the opening lines, “Do you see what I see?/Truth is an offence” (1-2), Hetfield voices his concern over what can be considered to be the "truth". Keeping with the song’s title, he incorporates the idea that what is considered fact is based on people’s opinion more often than substantial evidence. He further develops this concept through the lines “Truths to you are lies to me” (25) and “Do you trust what I Trust?/Me, myself and I” (32-33). These relate closely to the nihilistic concept of subjective truth. The same song also incorporates the process of eliminating preexisting foundations for the purpose of improvement in the lines “Do You Need What I Need?/Boundaries Overthrown/Look Inside to Each His Own” (29-31). Where the boundaries are to be eliminated in an attempt to create the ideal society where everyone is free to pursue what they desire. Another song dealing heavily with nihilism is "Fade to Black", which describes the nihilistic feelings of someone contemplating suicide. The thought process involved in suicide is thought to be very nihilistic in nature, as it requires one to surrender any religious beliefs towards the afterlife and fate. Throughout "Fade to Black", the narrator of the song describes his disregard for any values or beliefs, and the desire to destroy any existence he may have. The line “Nothing matters no one else” (4) is of great significance as it shows the complete removal of any value found in life. The song continues to describe the agony and despair felt by the narrator, and the final line “death greets me warm, now I will just say good-bye” (20), summarizes this lack of emotional attachment to life held by the nihilistic character. The passiveness of the words provides a special emphasis on the feelings of a true nihilist.
Another key nihilistic artist in this genre is the industrial group "Nine Inch Nails". While the group’s recordings do feature performances by many different participants, the large majority of their compositions and lyrics are written by lead singer Trent Reznor. In general, most of Reznor’s recent music can be seen as nihilistic in nature, but the most evident and reoccurring appearances of nihilism appear on the 1994 album The Downward Spiral. The work itself is very dark in nature, as the album narrates the progression of one man’s struggle to identify the purpose of life, which consequently leads to his eventual downfall. In the piece "Heresy", he states “he tries to tell me what I put inside of me/he's got the answers to ease my curiosity/he dreamed up a god and called it Christianity” (2-4). This is clearly Reznor’s response to organized religion, and its usage as a form of control and its social limitations. By telling people what they can “put inside” of them, religion places limitations on people. This particular line may have a few meanings, such as the foods ingested by certain religions, or even the boundaries of sexual practices set forth by the church. Also, he places emphasis on Nietzsche’s belief that a faith in god is what provides people with an “answer to the question of the meaning of life” (Frey, 124). But problems eventually arise when the truth of god is made invalid. The lines “Your god is dead/and no one cares” (5-6) are of particular significance, due to their close relationship with Nietzsche’s famous quote “God is dead”. Also, in strong agreement with Nietzsche’s belief that abandonment of one’s belief brings freedom are the following lines “if there is a hell/I’ll see you there” (7-8). The protagonist in the song has abandoned any belief in God by declaring that there is not afterlife, and is now free to act as naturally as they would like. Another strong piece of evidence of this philosophical standpoint in Reznor’s music is "March of the Pigs". This piece represents the political side of nihilism where, in order for a strong society to strive, all pieces of authority and establishment must be eliminated. Specifically the lines “I want to break it up I want to smash it up I want to fuck it up/I want to watch it come down” (15-16) provide the most detail towards this act of destructive reconstruction. The sense of freedom and satisfaction provided by this is noted in the lines “the pigs have won tonight/now they can all sleep soundly/and everything is all right" (20-23). By destroying these standards, the nihilist can attempt to reach a sense of satisfaction through their newfound freedom.
Music has always been a well known medium for artists to channel their feelings with unlimited creativity, and it comes as no surprise that recording artists would include their philosophical beliefs into their music. The popularity of nihilism in modern metal music has a close relationship with the heavy metal culture, which at times seems to celebrate destruction and chaos. Metal fans are fond of the idea of being free from religious constraints, and rather enjoy pushing social boundaries set forth by others. By incorporating their nihilistic beliefs regarding God and society into their music, metal artists have found a way to communicate with their audience on a deeper level, while allowing them to remain liberal and follow their own set of beliefs. These are the essential reasons that nihilism exists in music, and has created a path that musicians of the future will be likely to follow.
Frey, Herbert. "Marcel Gauchet's Disenchanted World and Nietzsche's Concept of Nihilism" Method and Theory in the Study of Reiligion 14.1 (2002): 120-128
Ronen, Shoshana. "Nietzsche and Wittgenstein: On Truth, Perspectivism, and Certainty" Dialogue and Universalism 11.5 (2001):97-115
Marilyn Manson, Mechanical Animals. Interscope, 1998.
Marilyn Manson, Holy Wood. Interscope, 2000.
Nine Inch Nails, The Downward Spiral. Nothing 1994.
Metallica, Ride the Lightning. Elektra, 1984.
Metallica, ...And Justice For All. Elektra, 1988.